“Rasheeda Speaking” by Hannah Arwe
This past weekend I went to see a play called “Rasheeda Speaking,” at Rivendell Theatre in Chicago. The play is written by Joel Drake Johnson and was directed by Sandy Shinner. In the past, it has only been developed in readings at two locations in Berkeley, California, so this was its world premiere as a production. “Rasheeda Speaking” takes place in present day Chicago, and is about the conflicts that arise in a doctor’s office between Dr. Williams, the white male doctor, Ileen, a while female patient coordinator and appointed office manager, and Jaclyn, a black female patient coordinator, as Dr. Williams attempts to “redistribute” Jaclyn to a different office in the hospital. The play begins with Dr. Williams coercing Ileen into monitoring Jaclyn’s behavior with patients, in order to find proof that she is doing poorly at her job, just as Jaclyn is about to return from being out sick for several days. The majority of the play consists of conversations between Ileen and Jaclyn, as Ileen attempts to spy on and micromanage Jaclyn’s behavior at work, and Jaclyn quickly realizes what is going on. The play brings up many issues of interpersonal and structural racism, sexism, white privilege, white guilt, the history of slavery, and white supremacy. Even a few days after seeing the play, it is difficult to determine the goals or overall messages of the play, but I have been thinking constantly about many of the themes it brought up, and how I can create dialogue about them with others.
There are two scenes in the play to which I keep returning. In the first, Jaclyn has just begun to realize that Ileen and Dr. Williams are attempting to push her out of the office, and is feeling harassed and embarrassed as Ileen continues to micromanage and ridicule her work. A new patient, an elderly white woman walks in that no one has told Jaclyn about, and Ileen insists that Jaclyn help her. Unprepared and upset, Jaclyn responds curtly to the patient, which results in further criticism and shaming by Ileen. The patient then comments to Ileen that Jaclyn must be the way she is because she is still angry about slavery. Later on in the second scene, Ileen accuses Jaclyn for the second time of switching her possessions around in her desk, and when Jaclyn denies it, Ileen has a full emotional break down, begins crying, and leaves work early. As she walks out, Jaclyn is giggling quietly to herself.
I have been thinking non-stop about these scenes juxtaposed against one another because of the way they show the dehumanization of certain people through racism. In the first scene, all the attention is paid to the white female patient who has been hurt because Jaclyn was curt and interrupted her, while the racially charged harassment Jaclyn received that is causing her curt behavior is erased. I really felt this erasure when discussing the play others that had also seen it. One person, who is a doctor, argued for the importance of the rule that “the patient is always right,” saying that even though Jaclyn was being mistreated, she is not allowed to take it out on the patients. Doing so indicates an extreme lack of professionalism. The way in which the play combined dominant ideologies of professionalism and business ethics with structural racism is something I continue to think about. Why is it that we are so afraid of doing any harm at all to “the patient,” but the systematic mistreatment of the employee, especially when they are of color, is so easily bypassed? Why can we see the white patient as a human, and not the black employee? Grappling with these questions has taken over my thoughts since I saw the play, and reminds me of the devastating reality that is racism. As a white woman involved in anti-racist work, it is immensely frustrating to see how a white person’s feelings are prioritized over a black person’s, how racism is so ingrained in everyday interactions that it is difficult to see it as erasing someone’s humanity, someone’s personhood. It is frightening, as someone who has worked in medical spaces where “the patient is always right,” to feel the pressure to support that mentality, even as I know the racist harm done to Jaclyn is immensely more deplorable.
What’s even more important is looking at this first scene along with the second, in which Ileen, the white employee, has an emotional breakdown in the middle of the office, crying, yelling, and eventually abruptly rushing out. While no patients are around in this moment, by dominant standards her behavior is also “unprofessional,” and one could say detrimental to the productivity and progress of the office. And yet, it is excused. What’s more, Jaclyn’s giggling at the expense of Ileen as she walks out is considered, by dominant standards, mean and unlikeable. Another person I spoke with that had seen the play commented that they were rooting for Jaclyn up until the moment she giggled behind Ileen’s back. Isn’t there a double standard here? When the black woman does something “unprofessional,” it is unaccepted, and her job and livelihood are threatened. The white patient’s feelings and the white employee’s opinions are prioritized, denying the racial injustice done to the black woman. However, when the white woman does something “unprofessional,” it is excused, while the black woman’s response to it is demonized and her whole likeability and personality are called into question.
It is important to bring intent versus impact into this play. When I’ve made the point of the double standard to others, some say I need to look at the intent. The play shows the idolization of Ileen’s micromanagement of Jaclyn, demonstrating how because Ileen is only intending to do her job well, and to think of the needs of the patients she is serving, her racist criticism of Jaclyn is pardoned. She did not mean it that way, and she was trying so hard to make things right. On the other hand, Jaclyn’s giggling at Ileen’s tears was intentional. There is no denying she meant to laugh, and that she thought what was happening to Ileen was amusing. Therefore, the white woman is trying to be good, and the black woman is trying to be bad.
The problem with looking at intent is that it completely ignores the reality of what happens after. The impact. Although Ileen is trying to be good, to help the patient and to follow orders, in doing so she is justifying her own white privilege and the racist way in which she treats Jaclyn. As a result of the first scene, Jaclyn faces the threat of Ileen reporting her behavior toward the patient to the doctor, who will then have cause to fire her based solely on the opinions of the white employee and the white patient, completely ignoring the alienation, embarrassment, and abuse under which Jaclyn was forced to operate. The impact of this scenario is that Ileen, the doctor, and the patient, all white, continue to hold the power, while Jaclyn continues to experience marginalization.
In the second scene, the same logic does not follow. If Jaclyn is perpetuating the same kind of hatred and bigotry against Ileen for giggling at her expense, Ileen’s whole well-being should also be threatened. But the reality is that while Jaclyn may hold the power for a brief moment, Ileen’s breakdown and seemingly “unprofessional” behavior will not result in a threat to her employment or social status. This is shown in the way the white male doctor feels for Ileen’s emotional distress, excusing her behavior in the workplace and calming her down, checking to make sure she is doing alright. Where is this support and care for Jaclyn? While the reaction of Ileen to the bitterness of what is going on in the office is heard, validated, and addressed, the harm done to Jaclyn is smoothed over, silenced, and denied by both Ileen and Dr. Williams. Looking at impact rather than intent in this play disrupts dominant notions of what harm looks like, and unpacks the reality of structural racism for women like Jaclyn. It also allows us to see the actions of both individuals as separate from who they are. Instead of talking about Ileen and Jaclyn as good or bad people, we can look at the real consequences of their actions, regardless of intent. This justifies the experience of Jaclyn who is dehumanized and subordinated, and of Ileen who is privileged and praised.
Seeing plays like “Rasheeda Speaking,” and also creating dialogue around them, are crucial to calling out what racism really looks like, and the violent impact it has on people of color. It is important to critically analyze moments like the ones I have mentioned here, in which white supremacy is constantly operating and justifying the silencing of people of color’s lived experiences. In order to subvert the narrative, and dismantle systems of racist oppression, we must fully unpack these moments to understand how normalized hatred has become, and how we participate in that hatred, even unintentionally.